Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Review: Sonic CD (Sega CD)

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soniccd_boxConsole: Sega-CD/Mega-CD
Released: 1993
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega
Instruction Manual: Not Necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $11.99 (used), $23.50 (new) (pricecharting.com
Other Releases: Yes – PC, PS2/Gamecube (Sonic Gems Collection)
Digital Release? Yes – Steam, Xbox 360, PS3, Android, iOS ($5 on all platforms)

Sonic CD is one of those games that it’s just popular to like.  I don’t want to start on a negative note, the game does have some merit, but it’s not a particularly good Sonic game and doesn’t quite change the universe like many will claim.  Before Sega decided to blitz every console on the market with the digital version, Sonic fans were gnawing at the bit for a decent port (sadly the Sonic Gems Collection ports had emulation issues).  Now that it’s everywhere the gaming community seems to have adjusted to a more realistic view of the CD adventure that throws a few imaginative ideas at relatively lackluster level design.

At one point you're forced to beat Metal Sonic in a race.

At one point you’re forced to beat Metal Sonic in a race.

For those that aren’t up on their Sonic history, the hedgehog was co-created by Naoto Oshima and his more known partner Yuji Naka.  After the release of the first game, Naka and several members of that team moved to the United States and joined with STI (Sega Technical Institute) to create Sonic the Hedgehog 2.  Meanwhile the remaining developers, including Oshima, took the concepts that were in early development for Sonic 2 and expanded upon them into what eventually became Sonic CD.  This is why despite coming out around the same time as Sonic 2, Sonic CD looks graphically more like the original and doesn’t seem to adapt some of the great ideas of the sequel.  Still, it does feature some interesting gameplay mechanics, like the ability to move into the past and future with two full versions of the many levels.  This dual expansion of the campaign does have a casualty: level design.  Many of the levels in Sonic CD feature plenty of wasted real estate in the interest of moving quickly to the right, odd gimmicks that net death if you don’t tolerate the so-so platforming, and several instances where Sonic’s momentum is completely spoiled by a random ramp or springboard.  Despite these layout flaws I still contest that the boss designs are superior over Sonic 2 and prove that not all of the talent in Sega’s Japanese team migrated to America.

Bonus levels liberally used the scale and rotate function similar to mode 7 graphics on SNES.

Bonus levels liberally used the scale and rotate function similar to mode 7 graphics on SNES.

If Sonic CD were to release on a different platform, especially the Genesis, it would not have held up well and definitely couldn’t hold up against Nintendo’s famous plumber but with the weak selection on the Sega CD, it’s one of the few action titles worth playing.  As with most CD titles, the biggest highlight of the game are the cutscenes and audio.  An opening animated scene that tells the basic story and blows away the bare-bones plot of the Genesis sequel.  I think it’s a shame that of all the games that held back when it came to pointless movies on the Sega CD, this is the one game I would prefer to have more, especially to better flesh out new characters Amy Rose (Sonic’s girlfriend) and Metal Sonic (his nemesis).  It’s possible that these scenes were planned and even produced (at least partially) but had to be cut to get the game out in time (it released just before the Black Friday rush on November 19, 1993).  On the other hand, the soundtrack is supposedly spectacular, although if you’ve played it (or if you check out the video that I will be posting shortly) I don’t think it’s any amazing feat.  Hardcore fans and import elitists will tell you that the culprit is the different soundtrack over the European and Japanese version.  The Japanese version featured upbeat pop tunes by Keiko Utoku, a famous singer in Japan, for the opening and closing songs and boss battles sampled the song “Work that Sucker to Death” by George Clinton and others.  In the US, Spencer Nilson replaced almost all of the music (who has a justifiable reputation from his many works on Sega CD first party titles), and the fan favorite song Sonic Boom (performed by Pastiche) were integrated and updated the game to a more contemporary sound.  I still feel there’s something cheerful and dated about the graphics and gameplay of Sonic CD that benefits from the more playful Japanese soundtrack, but neither version specifically blows me away and I personally own the US version.  In all other releases, both soundtracks were made available although Sega made the US soundtrack the default music for all versions worldwide.

A shot of the animated FMV cutscene in the beginning.

A shot of the animated FMV cutscene in the beginning.

Sonic CD exists in a world where major overhauls were ignored in the interest of preserving what made the original title great.  While I appreciate the plot and the fact that levels can change drastically in both pace and difficulty depending on whether you complete them in the future or the past, the only thing that remained unchanged was its weak level design.  That doesn’t mean that there’s not a good reason to play or even enjoy the game, it’s more fun than most of the other platformers on Sega CD, but it’s not the amazing Sonic title that justifies buying a Sega CD (or the Sonic Gems Collection for that matter) like fans would have you believe.  I must admit that I wouldn’t consider a Sega CD collection complete unless it had Sonic CD and its usually one of the first purchases I recommend for new collectors.  As a part of the history of Sonic titles it’s worth checking out at the cheap $5 price tag for digital versions, but curb your expectations appropriately.

Written by Fred Rojas

November 30, 2012 at 9:09 pm

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